Elizabeth Cobbs is the Melbern Glasscock chair in American history at Texas A&M, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and author of “The Tubman Command, A Novel,” released this week.
Harriet Tubman won an Internet vote in 2015 to decide which American woman should appear on the nation’s currency by 2020. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump denounced the choice as “political correctness.” Now, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has canceled the plan’s implementation, at least until President Trump leaves office.
But Tubman should be on the $20 bill not simply because she won a popularity contest, but because she is the greatest female patriot in American history.
Designation as a patriot has long been the standard for appearance on the currency. But what makes a patriot?
Historically, a patriot is someone who symbolizes, advances or fights to defend the ideal that all people are created equal. By this standard, many Americans would qualify, but each man on America’s bank notes did something extraordinary to advance the nation’s founding ideal that “all men are created equal.”
George Washington on the $1 bill won the war that forged the nation. Thomas Jefferson on the $2 bill wrote the ideal that defines it. Abraham Lincoln on the $5 bill stood up for the Union when no one thought it could be preserved, and Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill engineered the government that Lincoln saved. Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill popularized the notion that common folk have a place at the top, and Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill gave the United States its hardest-fought military victory.
As their efforts demonstrate, an outstanding patriot does these things at a time when the nation’s fundamental values are imperiled (Jackson’s qualifications are questionable for that reason). He or she stands as the best example of a collective effort during a moment of crisis to preserve America as a land of liberty.
How does Tubman rank among these men? The scholarly record is clear. Tubman helped redeem America from its original sin to bring our nation in line with its founding ideal. She embodies the resistance to slavery.
On the eve of the Civil War, more than 10 percent of all Americans were enslaved by other Americans, deprived of their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Tubman was one of those enslaved. Risking death, she fled alone across more than 100 miles of hostile territory to liberate herself in 1849. Not content with freeing just one person, she repeatedly risked her life to free a hundred others in repeated clandestine raids over 11 years. For sheer number of escapes, her record is unparalleled.
The potential consequences were horrifying. Massachusetts abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who later commanded the first official regiment of African American troops, called her “the greatest heroine of the age.”
She had “a reward of twelve thousand dollars offered for her in Maryland and will probably be burned alive whenever she is caught,” he wrote in a letter in 1859.
Risking apprehension to address audiences in the North, Tubman became the emblem of defiance to tyranny. Captives as far away as Louisiana, like Thomas Cole, spoke in his recollections of the “colored woman . . . that comes down here next to us and gets a man and his wife and takes them out and they don’t get ketched.”
Frederick Douglass knew no one, except the abolitionist John Brown, who “willingly encountered more perils.”
Tubman became one of the most prominent members of the generation that challenged slavery.
But her patriotic contributions did not end when war broke out. Tubman served the American cause on the occupied Sea Islands of South Carolina. According to the brigadier general who later recommended her for a military pension, Tubman operated as a “spy” who “made many a raid inside the enemy’s lines, displaying remarkable courage, zeal, and fidelity.”
She staged her most epic raid in June 1863, when Union defeats still outnumbered victories and foreign observers were convinced that Lincoln would lose. According to eyewitness testimony, Tubman inspired, devised and guided the perilous raid on the Combahee River that liberated 756 people in one day, destroyed four of the Confederacy’s richest plantations and brought more than 200 black men into the army.
The raid was a key event in the moral reframing of the war. Harper’s Weekly placed the startling report directly above what has since become one of the most famous photographs in American history: the whip-scarred back of a Louisiana man named Gordon who crossed into Union territory and was inducted as a proud Union soldier. Six weeks before the more famous, doomed assault by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry on Fort Wagner, Tubman’s raid on the Combahee River showed the world what black soldiers could accomplish — and why their cause went to the meaning of America.
In other words, Tubman was both an antebellum hero and a war hero. She helped change the fight to preserve the union into a fight to honor the nation’s highest ideal.
Later, Tubman turned to fresh challenges. She campaigned with Susan B. Anthony to enfranchise American women and built a shelter for the elderly that she operated until her death in 1913.
No other woman served the nation for as many years as Harriet Tubman, at comparable mortal risk, with accomplishments equally transformative. In stature, she is America’s foremost female patriot.
But perhaps Tubman’s worthiness is not the real issue. Mnuchin’s casual snub raises the question: Is any woman good enough to appear on an American bank note?
The Trump administration’s answer appears to be no.